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Review by Huntley Dent

GLASS Glassworks: Opening. Études for Solo Piano: Book 1, Nos. 1, 5, 6; Book 2, Nos. 11, 15. Metamorphosis Two. Wichita Vortex Sutra. Mad Rush. The Truman Show: Truman Sleeps Kristina Socanski (pn) OCLASSICA 20220617 (Streaming audio: 72:49)

I’m not sure anyone grasped what Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the catchy phrase, “The medium is the message.” But I was reminded of it while reflecting upon this highly enjoyable recital of piano music by Philip Glass. Minimalism in its strictest practice didn’t just resort to simple harmonies and constant repetition; it implicitly threw out the need for personal expression at the same time. This tends to hold true even in Glass’s operas, where the vocal line is almost as instrumental in nature as the orchestral part. It takes exceptional discipline to produce evenly the same rhythmic cell over and over, not to mention memorizing it, as the singers onstage must do.

What sets apart the approach of the talented Serbian-Norwegian pianist Kristina Socanski is her intention to reclaim expression, or as she puts it, “I investigate the non-repetitive in repetition.” Expression returns through the use of personal phrasing, along with the exploitation of color and timbre “that I associate with the sound universe of Chopin and Debussy.” It might be too early in this review to editorialize, but I think many listeners will welcome such an expressive approach. Whether you are an admirer or critic of Glass (or Minimalism in general), its effect on the listener tends to be one-dimensional—mesmerizing if you love it, numbing if you don’t.

Socanski’s stylistic turn-around has a direct parallel in the case of Igor Stravinsky, who decried emotion in music and conducted his own works in a detached, secco style. Although endorsed by the composer, such dry literalism diminished Stravinsky’s music as far as other conductors were concerned, and over time we got performances and recordings as effusive as Bernstein’s and as lush as Karajan’s. Stravinsky gave thumbs up to the one and thumbs down to the other, but there’s no question that printed music is released into the hands of its performers. This undeniable fact applies to Glass as much as Stravinsky, and every other composer.

If you believe that impersonality is totally authentic in Glass’s style of Minimalism, Socanski’s aims might not immediately appeal to you, but the very first track, the Opening from Glassworks, could melt your resistance. Socanski’s touch varies the expressive possibilities within repetition in a very appealing way. She doesn’t distort the repetitive ostinato pulse but applies a subtle rubato that allows phrases to be shaped into melodic gestures. This imparts a sense of freedom that won me over as a non-lover of mechanistic Minimalism. In her 2015 album of Glass piano music, Valentina Lisitsa takes care to perform Opening without an interpretative slant. Both hands deliver notes that are equalized into a uniform soundstream. There is no hint of melody plus accompaniment as Socanski conceives of it.

Both pianists also include “Truman Sleeps,” an extract adapted from Glass’s score for the film The Truman Show. Here the composer has couched the material very definitely as melody with arpeggiated accompaniment. Socanski treats the music in a Chopinesque style that rises and falls with flexible rubato and a variety of touch. One notes the slight pauses that greet modulations in the left hand, a gesture suitable for modulations in a Chopin nocturne. Lisitsa, using a shorter piano arrangement, has the same instinct and deviates from strict Minimalist style for the melody, although she is mechanical in the accompaniment and rather sober compared with Socanski’s fluid lyricism.

A major challenge comes with the inclusion of six examples from Glass’s two books of Études for Solo Piano. Chopin and Liszt brought the étude out of the practice room into the world of concert performance, where it has resided ever since. Technical challenges were still included, and Chopin focused on specific ones for each étude. Glass veers back to Czerny, in that exercises in technique dominate—the performer gets to practice very rapid arpeggiations, for example, and in place of melody the right hand might simply go up and down broken chords. The expressive interest in his études is much less, for example, than in Glass’s film scores.

As inescapable as these mechanistic aspects are, Socanski sets out to dramatize each étude, and in a sense this is where she achieves her greatest success. Just because the printed score verges on the sterile, it becomes fascinating to see what the pianist’s imagination can extract for expressive effect. It is impressive to hear how much she actually finds, or creates. Ultimately, performers are co-creators; this is one of the abiding legacies of the Romantic tradition. Quite often Socanski is unabashedly a Romantic, as in the grave mood she imparts to Book 1, Étude No. 5. The exercise is brought into the world of Chopin’s Funeral March but without undue exaggeration.

On the fast and furious side, Minimalist repetition can generate virtuoso excitement. This is true in particular of Mad Rush, an extended 14 minutes of extremely rapid passagework alternating with calmer stretches. Socanski meets the challenge splendidly.

I realize that I am playing to the gallery. Given the choice, general listeners crave emotional expression. The cadre of strict Minimalists no doubt feels otherwise. Because she doesn’t exaggerate her effects, I think Socanski has expanded the meaning of Glass’s music. She has made it her own, which after all is the performer’s prerogative, and thankfully so, because this is where great interpreters thrive. Huntley Dent


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